Five actions to advance green purchasing in South Korean municipalities

Government purchasing in South Korea accounts for 25.7% of country-level gross domestic product. Examples of purchases include vehicle fleets, construction materials, chemicals, electronics, and office materials. These purchases collectively contribute to global climate change and a host of other environmental concerns when manufactured and while in use.

Some South Korean municipalities have implemented green purchasing policies to address the environmental impacts associated with government purchasing. A sustainable purchasing policy formalizes an organization's commitment to reducing the environmental harms related to purchasing. These policies can also improve municipalities' internal efficiencies, thus enhancing cost savings.

In 2005, the South Korean government embraced the global call to action for green public procurement by implementing the Act on the Promotion of Purchase of Green products. The policy promotes sustainable lifestyles and consumption while increasing the purchase of eco-friendly products. However, at the local level, many municipal governments have struggled to implement green purchasing policies. Consequently, green purchasing has not reached its full potential to help municipalities mitigate their environmental impacts.

Researchers in the Institute of Governmental Studies at Korea University partnered with Arizona State University's Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative to conduct a national survey to learn more about local governments' green purchasing activity across South Korea. The survey generated 243 responses from department directors located in 85 municipalities. The findings show that 72% of municipalities have a green purchasing policy, 7% have no policy, and 21% of responding municipalities did not know if their municipality had such a policy. The survey findings point to five actions that facilitate green purchasing in local South Korean governments.

1. Build on complementary policies and practices
Complementary policies and practices are existing organizational activities that often support green purchasing. They can help reduce the costs of adopting green purchasing policies because organizations with complementary policies and practices already have a foundation in place to build their green purchasing programs. Complementary policies and practices also help create management commitment and a shared vision around similar issues.

For South Korean municipalities that already have a green purchasing policy, having also adopted complementary policies and activities puts them in a stronger position to improve the implementation success of their purchasing policy. This is because the internal capabilities necessary for managing both activities are either similar or related. This type of complementarity can create economies of scale and reduce operational costs. Complementary policies and practices also help create management commitment and shared vision around similar issues, reduce the cost of green purchasing adoption and facilitate the overall implementation success of green purchasing policies.

2. Use information about environmentally preferred products
Access to environmental information aids in green purchasing efforts. Roughly two-thirds of the South Korean municipalities with green purchasing policies report that they can access environmental information to implement these policies. Such information includes access to product ecolabels/certifications and online databases of environmentally friendly products and services. In the absence of this information, municipalities have greater difficulties implementing green purchasing.

Environmental labels and certifications are critical information mechanisms that facilitate green purchasing, which is why they are already a main component of the Act on Promotion of Purchase of Green Products. South Korean municipalities, therefore, are uniquely advantaged in identifying and purchasing green products. As a result, municipalities with green purchasing plans were more likely to use environmental labels and certifications in decision-making.

3. Assign responsibility to top-level management
Our results underscore the importance of top-management responsibility for adopting green purchasing policies. In South Korea, department directors indicate that financial resources and employee attitudes are more important to implementing green purchasing than top-management involvement. Leadership resolve in adopting and implementing green purchasing policies will build momentum and commitment. Top-level management plays a crucial role in the culture of sustainability within a municipality. Our results indicate that top managers can assume more responsibility for their municipalities' successful implementation of green purchasing. Municipalities that wish to implement a successful green purchasing policy should seriously consider the role of leadership and assignment of responsibility to top-level managers.

4. Enhance collaborative vendor relationships
Vendors can help facilitate South Korean municipalities' adoption of green purchasing policies and increase the probability of implementation success. They can serve as useful allies that help manage the complexity associated with green purchasing. At times, there can be a limited number of green product options available, and vendors can guide and educate municipalities toward more sustainable options. Municipalities with higher green purchasing success tend to work more closely with their vendors and rely on them as collaborators in implementing green purchasing policies.

5. Participate in professional networks to share best practices
As more municipalities develop their green purchasing programs, it creates an opportunity to learn from best practices. Professional networks such as the International Green Purchasing Network (IGPN), Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI), Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), and the Global Lead City Network on Sustainable Procurement (GLCN) have emerged to support green purchasing in municipalities, companies, and other organizations. Participating in these networks also helps members gain access to information on best practices and additional ways to introduce or strengthen green purchasing by making it part of the municipality's routines and processes and enhancing vendor relations. Further, because professional networks often offer learning opportunities through training webinars and conferences, municipalities avoid implementation hurdles already encountered by others. Networks can also inform municipalities of external support, such as grants, educational programs, and awards/recognitions that can assist with the development of a green purchasing policy and its successful implementation.

South Korean municipalities that adopt green purchasing policies are poised to address their environmental problems and save money. The five actions described above can help other South Korean municipalities and local governments worldwide further advance their green purchasing efforts. To learn more, read the full report findings found here.

Source: Choi, H., H.J. Kim, H.A. Jeon, H. Yim, A. Elovitz, M. Dubois, Y. Chen, N. Darnall, J.M. Stritch, and S. Bretschneider. 2022. Advancing Green Purchasing in South Korean Municipalities. Arizona State University, Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative.